Don't expect a robot utopia to spare you from working in the future
"Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food, and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores." That's the optimistic proclamation of a recent op-ed by the technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post. This kind of techno-utopianism begs for a bit of schadenfreude: The future never quite seems to arrive and we love to watch predictions fail. Yet there somehow remains that gnawing sense of hope — maybe, this time, it actually will.
Over the course of a recent week, I embraced Silicon Valley's methods for getting things done. With the company discounting its services for a launch in the city, I took Lyft cars, the slightly down-market Uber clone, back and forth across Brooklyn. Instead of going shopping in Manhattan, I used eBay Now to have electronics from Target brought to my apartment — no need for multi-day delivery times. These days, I have the option of getting my laundry picked up by car and my organic groceries curated for me.
The existence of these time-saving conveniences provided by well-funded start-ups — the apparent beginnings of our coming techno-utopia — are what pushed Wadhwa to make the grandiose claim that soon, human labor will be irrelevant. In the age of the self-driving car and drone delivery systems, "There won't be much work for human beings," he writes. His solution? Let humans work less. "We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today," Wadhwa proposes. "We may not need the entire population to be working." Indeed, those not working could focus "on creativity and enlightenment," he suggests.
Sounds great, right? Wadhwa's argument runs that technology has fundamentally disrupted not just hotels and food delivery, but the human race itself. We have made ourselves irrelevant, no longer able to compete with technology. "The economic challenge of the future will not be producing enough," agrees Lawrence H. Summers, the former treasury secretary, in the Wall Street Journal. "It will be providing enough good jobs."
One imagines socially established, economically successful people like Wadhwa and Summers sitting around after the prehistoric invention of fire, loudly proposing that, with this newfound power, humanity will never again have to labor to survive the winter. What post-work theories like this miss is that humanity is remarkably good at inventing new forms of consumption, which create new jobs, and, in turn, new oppressive hierarchies with little room for "creativity and enlightenment."
The idea that humans are meant to work 40 hours a week is a relatively recent innovation. During the Industrial Revolution, factory workdays stretched anywhere from 10 to 16 hours. The eight-hour-day movement came about in reaction to those conditions in the early 19th century. In 1817, the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen was calling for "Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest." By 1886, the U.S. Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that eight hours constituted a legal day's labor.
Yet for all our innovations, workers may have actually been better off in pre-industrial times, when they already knew how to structure a sustainable, lighter work schedule without the help of robots. In her book The Overworked American, Juliet B. Schor explains: "Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed." Medieval labor was broken up multiple times a day for meals and refreshments. A full "day of work" constituted only "half a day," Schor writes. In 14th-century England, servile laborers worked only 175 days out of the year, and farmers and miners just 180. Even with these schedules, they were able to sustain themselves.
So why don't we aim for something like this now, cutting down our commitments instead of dreaming up machines that will enable us to labor better instead of less? The problem is systemic, as Marx suggested in his 1867 Capital: "Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks." The more labor we produce, the more demand for labor we drive.
Wadhwa and Summers' dream of a robot-run utopia is not a new one, of course. It's a myth that exists in the Jetsons and in Pixar's Wall-E, which increasingly resembles a cautionary, rather than fairy, tale. In 1960, the Japanese architectural critic and poet Noboru Kawazoe sketched his similar vision: "Soon the time will come that everything will be done by machine. The only thing we have to do will be dreaming." That time hasn't arrived, but we can certainly dream.
For every benefit that I was provided in my experimental week, there were humans, rather than robots, behind the process. It was still a person who brought products to my door or drove me to my next destination. These are the new jobs that we create and fill, servicing the fresh demands created by technology — the demand to be anywhere and receive anything instantly. Wadhwa and Summers won't take these servile jobs. Instead, it will be the new working class. For the upper echelons, I'm sure the service will seem suitably robotic.
The technology we praise today for its frictionless efficiency places the onus for labor ever more squarely on humans. As I saved time in my own schedule this week by not having to travel to shop or avoiding the delays of the subway, I found myself working more, not less. The time I saved never felt like my own because I was somehow cheating to get it, and I had to take full advantage of the opportunity to gain even more through work.
As new technological innovations are developed, the nature of labor may change, but the workday is going nowhere. That's because at its root is still the desire to consume. Kawazoe put that compulsion succinctly in a line that may as well describe the vision of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: "I want to be a god."
In the end, the CEOs are the only ones living anything close to that particular dream.
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.
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